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  • Barbra Davis

Are You Suffering From Digital Dementia?

Updated: May 4, 2022

Your brain on digital dementia

Bet you read that title and thought this would be a joke article. Guess what – digital dementia is a real thing and a lot of people who suffer from it are unaware of it. It’s a form of addiction which is socially acceptable, and with results we are just beginning to identify.

First, a Confession I must confess, as a writer I spend a lot of time doing internet research and looking for new ideas. (Who wouldn’t be fascinated to learn that a “moment” is actually a medieval unit of time equal to 1-1/2 minutes?) But that’s my job, and information gathering is part of the process of creating articles. I don’t spend long hours watching cat videos...

My other digital activities are very limited. I own a tablet with 2 games and a library access app installed on it. My “smart phone” is a Tracfone and I pay as I go, so I don’t use it much. Even before I learned about digital dementia I knew excessive use of digital media was becoming a problem.

I have been in meetings where people put their cell phones on the table in easy reach before they even sat down. (Seemed like the meeting was of secondary importance.) I have been sitting in a restaurant while someone right across the table from me talked on their phone and basically ignored me. I have walked down an aisle at Walmart and heard all about a stranger’s infidelity as a woman complained loudly about her husband to someone on her cell phone. I don’t need to be exposed to any of these things! But each of these scenarios pretty much defines digital dementia.

What is Digital Dementia? Technically, digital dementia is, “a deterioration of brain function as a result of overuse of digital technology.” It’s the result of addiction to electronic media. The term was coined by a top German scientist, Manfred Spitzer, in 2012. Spitzer, medical director of the Psychiatric University Hospital in Ulm, Germany, became intrigued by a study done in Seoul, Korea, which seemed to point to a new phenomenon – dementia in young age groups.

The conclusions resulting from these and other studies are alarming. Overuse of digital information from our computers, smart phones, tablets and more, has been found to cause a breakdown in brain function that mimics problems usually associated with a head injury, stroke, tumors, traumatic brain injury, or psychiatric illness.

This is a new phenomenon – so new we are just beginning to see the results. Scientists tell us we now consume as much data in a single day as the average person from the 1400s would have encountered in an entire lifetime! As a result, Spitzer notes, we are outsourcing our brains to our smart phones. Just like not using our muscles regularly makes them grow weaker, not exercising our brains weakens them, too.

What are the Symptoms? Digital overuse stimulates the left side of the brain and reduces stimulation to the right. Since the right side determines your ability to concentrate, resulting problems may include a short attention and memory span, as well as emotional problems like depression. Essentially, smart phones make you stupid. Here are a few specific symptoms:

~ Absent-minded “Senior Moments” We all have them. You walk into a room and forget why you’re there. You go to the grocery store to pick up a specific item, and come back with a bag of groceries minus that one thing you needed. You chalk it up to getting older, but digital dementia might be making it worse.

~ Shorter Attention Span Think of all the pop-ups and other distractions that come with tablet, phone and PC use. Whether we realize it or not, the flashing lights and screen changes cause stress and anxiety. We learn to absorb information in small bites and this can result in shorter a attention span.

~ Loss of Social Skills Spizer notes, “the more time you spend with screen media…the less your social skills will be.” This is the one I notice most often. So many times I have been in the company of others who were checking their phones, or texting on them, while I stood by not knowing what to do. Do these people not realize how much this can make others feel less important?

~ Physical Problems Sitting for hours staring at screens, lack of exercise, and poor posture all contribute to obvious physical problems, and may lead to conditions like lack of focus, poor balance, social alienation and even depression.

Obesity is becoming a major health issue in this country, and digital dementia is certainly contributing to it. Studies also indicate poor sleep quality may be a side effect. Researchers are now studying a possible link to symptoms like insomnia or migraines, which have been on the rise among Koreans.

Can Digital Dementia Be Reversed? The term “dementia” is actually misleading, because it technically refers to an irreversible loss of brain performance, with no effective cure. The digital version, however, seems to be not only treatable but also reversible. Here are some things to do if you think you may be developing digital dementia:

~ The solution, however, may be distasteful to the addict: cut back on media use. Set limits on data usage and time spent watching TV, playing games and using other digital devices.

~ Use That Brain I remember my 8th grade math teacher saying something like, “You won’t always have a calculator handy, so you better learn how to do this.” While I sort of chuckle at how wrong he was, considering the ready availability of smart phones and tablets today, he would still advocate memorizing multiplication tables and learning general math skills. The studies indicated that developing right brain skills (reasoning, memorization, etc.) is a major key to preventing digital dementia.

So, rather than automatically turning to Alexa to look up answers you can’t immediately think of, take a moment (remember that’s 1-1/2 minutes) to concentrate and see if you can come up with it on your own. Read an actual book with paper pages instead of one you downloaded. Read a newspaper instead of watching the news on TV. Exercise your brain.

~ Take a Break Regardless of where you are when using digital devices, take regular breaks. Get out of the chair and walk around. Go get the mail. Jump rope (OK, that might be a little far fetched). Talk with a friend (in person, not on the phone). Do something active to balance all that sitting.

~ Revert to Childhood When I was a kid, I memorized phone numbers and other key information because it was stuff I would need to use regularly. Now I have a phone filled with contact numbers I couldn’t recall if asked – I never had to learn them. It might be a good idea to start by memorizing them, one-by-one. Learn something new: a new language, a new instrument, etc. Hire a teacher or swap skills with a friend – don’t rely on You Tube videos.

~ Turn off Notifications With those constant notifications, you tend to check your phone any time and place, even when you shouldn’t. As a kid, I remember we didn’t answer the phone at meal times. “If it’s important, they’ll call back.” Today “they” can also leave a message. Set specific times to check your phone. (And if you find yourself worrying about what you might be missing while you wait, know you suffer from digital dementia!)

~ Have a Conversation Don’t always send a text when you want to communicate with someone, send them a card or letter. When you share a space with someone, whether it’s in a car, a restaurant or an office, be present, look them in the eyes, listen to what they say.

~ Get Physical Much as I balk at the idea of intentional exercise, I still enjoy walking the mall or swimming in the pool. Whatever exercise you can stand, get out there and move--it’s important for your brain as well as your body because it increases blood flow and nutrients to your gray matter.

~ Sit Up Straight It is important to maintain good posture when looking at digital screens. The more you slouch and look down, the less alert your brain becomes. Also, as your Mom probably warned, you increase the chances of developing poor posture.

Conclusions While the research on digital dementia is fairly new and will continue to evolve, there definitely is enough proof to make us each take a good look at our digital habits. The studies have shown it’s a major problem for children and teens; how much more should it concern those of us who are already dealing with some of these effects through the normal aging process?

So let’s not make our lives more difficult than they need to be. Put down that phone, drop that tablet, turn off that TV – and let’s do lunch.

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